It was easy-breezy. In a land where small electric fans cause tornadoes of political outrage, the simple contract negotiations between State Sen. John Thrasher and his new employers, the Florida State University Board of Trustees, were refreshingly smooth.
The terms appear to be completely pro forma. Except for one little detail. The devil is in that detail.
It wasn’t the $2.15 million price tag for President Thrasher’s 5-year contract that bothered me. We know that, at $430,000 per year, Thrasher’s in the middle of the pack among presidential salaries for Florida’s state universities. And it wasn’t the fully staffed university-owned home, either, although that’s an intriguing benefit, given that other university heads get as much as $50,000 per year in housing allowances. The club memberships are to be expected, as is the potential $100,000-per-year bonus.
The detail that had me choking on my coffee related to another presidential perk, passed along by the state’s media in an “oh, by the way” manner. From the News Service of Florida: “The trustees also intend to grant Thrasher, who received his undergraduate and law degrees from the Tallahassee school, a tenured faculty appointment as professor in the College of Law.”
A tenured faculty appointment as law professor? I’m sure his fellow professors are beside themselves. And they’re not the only ones.
Rewind to early September, when FSU’s faculty senate passed a resolution that recommended against hiring Thrasher — a non-academician — as president. The faculty didn’t recommend anyone else specifically, just anyone but Thrasher.
At heart, professors are teachers, and their protest was not unrelated to Thrasher’s declared war on public school teachers. It’s a war that’s spanned the terms of three governors: the current governor, Rick Scott (this magazine went to press before the election); the former-but-would-be-again governor, Charlie Crist; and another former governor and would-be-president, Jeb Bush, also known as Gov. Default.
In 2010, Sen. Thrasher leaped tall buildings to pass the controversial “teacher tenure” bill, only to have the landmark legislation nullified by Gov. Crist’s veto pen.
There were numerous reasons for rejecting Senate Bill 6, but this sentence, from Crist’s April 15, 2010, veto letter, conveys the gist: “Some of these directives are quite overreaching, such as not allowing multi-year teacher contracts, choosing arbitrary percentages for calculating a teacher’s effectiveness, and permanently decertifying an excellent teacher in Florida who simply needed improvement two out of the previous five years on the job.”
Gov. Default was not happy.
Bush, you see, had been (and still is!) busy touring the country talking about education reform. A big plank in his reform platform is accountability, which, through SB 6, dovetails perfectly with the political right’s hatred of labor unions. Never mind that a teacher’s union status, or tenure status, has never been linked to student performance outcomes. It didn’t stop Sen. Thrasher from pushing through SB 6’s reincarnation, SB 736, the following year.
Never mind, either, that the test scores we now use to evaluate teachers aren’t reliable indicators of teacher effectiveness over time. Given how many times the state Board of Education has switched the goalposts, tweaked the cutoff scores and cushioned school grades, the test scores may not be a reliable indicator of anything at all.
But Gov. Default can’t be bothered with the details. He’s got a national campaign to run in 2016, and he needs his home state to be on board with his teacher accountability plans. Those plans abolished tenure as we knew it for new public school teachers in Florida.
But not for newly minted Professor Thrasher.
Unlike many professors who teach every day at Florida State University but have not yet attained tenure, the man who’s made a career out of politics can teach as long as he likes.
“Tenure,” in the academic world, means that those who earn it are welcome to stay for the duration of their careers, unless there’s just cause to fire them. With Florida’s public school teachers, the term “tenure” was batted about more colloquially to signify a multi-year contract with similar due-process protections. Not anymore. Our public school teachers, with their year-to-year contracts, are just one step above at-will employees.
For President Thrasher to accept a tenured professorship, without earning that position through years of working in the classroom, would be the height of hypocrisy.
A version of this column appeared on Context Florida.